Review by Sean Boelman
Directed by Anthony Banua-Simon, Cane Fire offers a fascinating examination of the intersection of culture and filmmaking. A cinematic essay that will likely appeal most to those who are already interested in film history, this documentary may not appeal beyond the cinephile niche, but is an essential watch for that group.
The movie explores the Hawaiian island of Kauai with a particular focus on the once booming film industry that established itself on the island and took hold of its people and culture. A big part of what makes the movie so interesting is that audiences may not realize a lot of their favorite films were shot on the island of Kauai, and the documentary offers some behind-the-scenes insight into what makes them tick.
However, what is likely to stick most with viewers is the exploration of the way in which the film industry altered the course of the culture of the indigenous residents of the island. The business is notorious for leaving a large impact on the places it touches without cleaning it up, and this is likely one of the most upsetting instances of that.
Banua-Simon has a lot on his mind here, trying to juggle film history, the history of his culture, a political message, and even an exploration of his own identity, but for the most part, he pulls it off. At a mere hour and a half long, the movie often feels like a non-stop info dump, and a longer format likely would have helped to alleviate some of this.
The other thing that works against the film is that much of the story is told via voiceover from Banua-Simon. Although the story he is telling is absolutely fascinating, it would have been nice had he had a bit more variety in his storytelling technique. At times, he sounds a bit monotonous, which doesn’t do the material any favors.
Thankfully, Banua-Simon has ample access to archive footage and clips from movies shot on Kauai to accent his narration. These images really highlight the natural beauty of Kauai, in addition to the beauty of its people’s culture, which will keep the viewer’s eyes glued to the screen even if the story isn’t presented in the most dynamic way.
That said, perhaps the most interesting portions of the film are interviews with the residents of Kauai who were living on the island at the height of the industry’s influence. These first-hand accounts are tinged with both nostalgia and lament, perfectly encapsulating the double-edged sword that this industry was for these people. Unfortunately, these aren’t featured as prevalently in the movie, but they are welcome when present.
Cane Fire is a film history documentary dealing with a seldom-discussed portion of cinematic canon. And while there are certainly ways that it could have been made a lot more accessible for mainstream audiences, it will be a delight for cinephiles.
Cane Fire is premiering as a part of the online edition of the 2020 Hot Docs Film Festival.
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